Turning Cellphones Into Mobile Microscopes
Researchers across California are working to bring medical microscopes to our cellphones — and vastly improve field medicine.
You can use your cellphone to take pictures, get driving directions, and free imprisoned angry birds. And perhaps soon, analyze microscopic blood samples.
Three separate University of California research teams have each concocted a new technology that converts just about any handset with a decent camera into a mobile microscope. That’s a development that could have a huge impact on medicine in developing countries-allowing health care workers in shantytowns and rural villages far from a hospital to diagnose malaria, HIV, and other diseases on the spot.
All three teams of UC researchers are proceeding from the same insight: Medical labs and trained doctors are scarce in poor countries, but cellphones are practically everywhere. There are more than 5 billion mobile phones in use around the world, according to the International Telecommunications Union, and almost three-quarters of them are in developing nations. “Cellphones weren’t part of our vision originally, but they made our job vastly easier,” says Aydogan Ozcan, a UCLA electrical engineering professor.
Ozcan, a trim 33-year-old with neatly barbered brown hair and olive skin, left his native Turkey in 2000 to study in the U.S. and now runs a research center at the university. In his small sixth-floor office (the size is compensated for by sweeping views of the Getty Center nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains), Ozcan shows me the device he developed to piggyback on all those mobile phones.
It’s called LUCAS—a loose shortening of “Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging.” It works like this: A square plastic housing, half the size of a matchbox, clips over the phone’s photo aperture. A health care worker puts a sample of blood, saliva, or other material onto a glass slide and slips it into the housing. Battery-powered LEDs attached to the device shine light through the sample. The light penetrates the semi-transparent cells and creates a pattern of “shadows” that are projected onto the phone’s CMOS sensor (the silicon chip that captures an image when you take a picture). Those patterns form a holographic image of each cell. Those images can then be sent over the wireless network to health care facilities where technicians can tell whether they show healthy blood, HIV antibodies, or waterborne parasites. The technicians then send their findings back. The whole gadget fits in the palm of your hand and costs only a few dollars.
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LUCAS has so many potential applications that it has garnered a fistful of awards, and funding, from sources ranging from the Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon is interested in using the technology for emergency battlefield medicine. Ozcan’s group is also working on adapting the technology to detect impurities in water, and even for fertility testing on semen samples.
He’s most excited, however, about using LUCAS to fight malaria. "Malaria kills millions of people every year," says Ozcan. "We need diagnostic tools that can be deployed on a mass scale."
Daniel Fletcher, a 39-year-old Texan with an Einsteinian corona of auburn hair who is a bioengineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, had the same thought a few years ago. He gave the undergraduates in his optics class a project: imagine they were in a distant part of Africa, suddenly sick, and in need of a blood test. That project became the seed from which Fletcher’s mobile microscope has grown.
Dubbed Cellscope, it is, essentially, a radically miniaturized set of regular microscope lenses. The lenses, about the size of a tape dispenser, clamp over the phone’s camera, and hold regular microscope slides. Users focus on the cells in the sample, as with a regular microscope, and snap a picture, which can then be transmitted by email or text message. “We’re just marrying the cellphone to centuries-old technology,” says Fletcher.
When Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, an associate professor of pathology at the University of California, Davis, read about Fletcher’s device in an academic journal a couple of years ago, his first thought was, “Wow.” His second was, “We could make it simpler, and cheaper.”
Wachsmann-Hogiu and his colleagues rolled out their prototype early this year. Where Ozcan’s devices use no lenses and Fletcher’s uses small ones, Wachsmann-Hogiu’s inhabits a sort of middle ground: it uses a single tiny lens. The whole apparatus consists of a round glass lens a little bigger than a pinhead, affixed over a cellphone camera’s aperture with a rubber ring and tape. Software running inside the phone corrects distortions caused by the spherical lens. Cost: $10 to $30 with glass lenses, but around $1 with plastic.
Each of these micro-microscopes has strengths and weaknesses. Wachsmann-Hogiu’s is the most portable, and the cheapest, but has the lowest resolution. It can “only” see objects as small as 1.5 microns; that’s good enough to spot a blood disorder like anemia, but not a virus like malaria. Ozcan’s and Fletcher’s have greater resolution, enabling them to see a greater variety of cells. Ozcan’s LUCAS, however, has the widest field of view. Conventional microscopes can only look at one tiny area of each blood sample at a time. Ozcan’s system can capture images of all the cells in a much larger swath of a sample, potentially speeding the process of diagnosis. On the other hand, it can only see samples on a slide. The other two can be held up to a patient’s skin or ear to look for infections.
All three devices, however, involve transmitting highly personal medical data over cell networks. That raises obvious privacy concerns; hackers could intercept that data. “It’s a problem for the whole field of telemedicine,” acknowledges Ozcan. The images LUCAS captures will be encrypted, he says, but for the most part, he doesn’t believe there’s much of a threat from data thieves wanting to steal medical information in the rural backwaters where he expects the technology to be used. Both his and Fletcher’s team are also working on software that would enable a patient to be diagnosed right on the handsets, in the field.
The biggest question for these technologies, though, is the same one facing all promising but untried products: Will they actually work in the real world?
“These devices can solve the problem of how to get an image of a blood sample in front of a trained professional,” says Dr. Harry Greenspun, a telemedicine expert at the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. “But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. You also need trained people, equipment to prepare the samples, a reliable wireless network, someone to review the image, and a way to make sure the patients are correctly identified at each end. A lot of new technologies solve one issue, but it’s much harder to incorporate them into the entire health care system.”
Fletcher and Ozcan say their teams have had encouraging results from field tests in Africa and South America. Both are aiming to bring commercial products to market within the next few years. (Wachsmann-Hogiu eventually hopes to do the same, but he’s still in the prototype stage.) The technologies could be used in rich countries, too. Cancer patients, for instance, could skip weekly trips to the hospital to have their blood checked by sending an image instead. That makes Ozcan and Fletcher competitors for grants and venture capital funding. In fact, they’ve both received funding from some of the same sources, including, in 2009, tying for an award from the Vodafone Americas Foundation.
Fletcher says he’s glad to have company. “It won’t be easy to get this technology adopted,” he says. “The issue of diagnosing diseases in developing countries needs as much attention as it can get. The more, the merrier.”
Vince Beiser is Pacific Standard's articles editor. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.